The United States and Russia appear to be gearing up for a second round of the Cold War. Washington still hopes to extend its reach deep into Moscow’s zone of interests, and the Russians intend to resist. Most of the action will be characterized by espionage and covert operations, but the clash is more than just a grudge match over territory and pipelines. Like the previous conflict, Cold War II will be defined by ideology. But this time around, wild-eyed revolutionaries aren’t hatching plots behind the walls of the Kremlin; their offices are right inside the Beltway.
Continuing tensions between old adversaries have been accompanied by a number of spy scandals involving Georgia, NATO, and the alliance’s role in the former Soviet space. As Moscow and the West expel each other’s “diplomats” and discover deeply burrowed moles, there seems to be an intensification of the clandestine struggle that only occasionally reaches the newswires. Russia and the United States are in a contest for the fate of inner Eurasia—the Kremlin’s sphere of influence and the object of Washington’s quest for global dominance.
Since every state spies and realizes it is being spied upon, public accusations of espionage often indicate a chill in relations. Two Russian diplomats were expelled from Brussels on April 29th in response to an earlier episode of espionage against NATO. Hermann Simm, an Estonian official in charge of safeguarding that country’s classified information, turned out to be a long-time agent for the SVR, Russian foreign intelligence. Before Simm was arrested last year, he was able to inflict enormous damage on NATO by passing its secrets to Moscow. Though one can certainly sympathize with Tallinn’s desire to protect its Western identity, Estonia’s membership in the North Atlantic alliance facilitated a hemorrhage of defense data. The expansion of an anachronism has provided a wealth of secrets to Russian intelligence officers, in addition to being militarily indefensible.
In a similar case, a senior Georgian foreign ministry official was alleged on May 5th to have furnished Moscow with intelligence while serving as Tbilisi’s representative to NATO. News of the arrest broke May 5, just as alliance-run “Partnership for Peace” exercises were to commence amidst political instability and rumors of an attempted coup. What applies to Estonia goes doubly so for Georgia. Washington’s promotion of this “plucky democracy” for NATO membership has created a host of problems, from additional Russian espionage to encouragement of the wildly irresponsible behavior of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. It is difficult to see any legitimate strategic ends of involvement with a fractured and chaotic nation so far removed from vital U.S. interests. Indeed, one can only conclude that the primary goal of American policy in the conflict-ridden Caucasus is to undermine Russian control of the region.
Moscow’s aggressive espionage operations against the West shouldn’t surprise anyone. Russian foreign policy is intelligence-driven, and tradecraft can play a rather significant part in statecraft. Elements of political culture from paranoia to the penchant for conspiracy also come into play, but these have been present for centuries. The Kremlin’s spy offensive must be seen in the context of Russian resurgence.
Although Russia made clear in the 2008 war with Georgia that it will be the power to order the former Soviet space, it is essentially reacting to U.S. encroachment. One can find Pentagon “footprints” in Central Asia, the Caucasus and Eastern Europe, whether by the establishment of bases or institutions like NATO. The situation differs markedly from the Cold War, when Western strategic planners banked on Soviet armor crashing through the Fulda Gap as the first step in the conquest of Europe. Moscow has no such capacity today—it seeks to secure a regional sphere of influence and the energy corridors therein simply to survive. With Russia’s population projected to fall from 141 million this year to around 135 million in 2020, the Kremlin is looking to hold the line in time for the nation to regenerate. The Russians have neither the desire nor the means for extravagant foreign adventures. In the face of U.S. encirclement, Putin and his subordinates are assuming an ultimately defensive posture.
Beyond geopolitics, the antagonism between Washington and Moscow has experienced a reversal of roles in the arena of ideology. From the 1917 October Revolution, Soviet Russia embodied the most radical force bent on transforming the world. Communism at once attracted factory workers and track layers, Western intellectuals and colonial liberationists. The commissars in the Kremlin declared the ideas of Marx and Lenin as scientific teachings delineating mankind’s path to a radiant future.
How times have changed! When Russia today opposes Kosovo independence or articulates its regional role in terms of history, culture, and ethnic solidarity, it looks downright counterrevolutionary.
Russia’s secret services also provide an example of shifts in ideology. Soviet intelligence once composed the vanguard of atheistic socialism. The Cheka and its successors knew no equal in ruthlessness or professional skill. Through the recruitment of agents in the West and various means of subversion, Moscow’s spies were charged with ensuring the eventual triumph of World Revolution. By the reasoning of dialectical materialism, any method, fair or foul, could be justified to advance the Communist cause. The Bolshevik sack of Heaven would be preceded by secret police infiltration.
Today Russia’s counterintelligence service, the FSB, maintains an Orthodox Church on the grounds of its headquarters at Lubyanka Square. It is nonetheless remarkable to see one of the Soviet Union’s top cold warriors profess Orthodox Christianity and call for the rebirth of tradition in Russian society. Nikolai Leonov wasn’t just any KGB officer; he was Moscow’s original point man for contacts with Ernesto “Che” Guevara and the Castro brothers before the Cuban Revolution. He would later run the KGB’s analysis directorate and become deputy chief of foreign intelligence. In possession of accurate information on the state of affairs in the USSR, Leonov knew in the 1970s that the outlook was grim. By the time of the Soviet collapse, Marxism-Leninism had been the organizing principle in Russia for three quarters of a century and the results were in.
The wreckage of Communism left Russians in an ideological void, and the chaotic 1990s gave them little hope in market democracy or the oligarchs who looted the country at will. Demographic freefall, crumbling infrastructure and other socio-economic ills have their roots in the Soviets’ murderous imposition of modern ideology. What Lenin and his successors wrought, however, was only aggravated by initiatives at westernization. Wars in Chechnya, NATO expansion, and U.S. lectures on human rights and “backsliding” on democracy played a large part in Russia’s disillusionment with the values espoused by the contemporary West.
Many Russians, including influential men such as Leonov, returned to their faith and the centuries of tradition reflective of the truth it reveals. They also rediscovered the Church as the principal source of order in society. As the old spy asserts,
Orthodoxy is Russia’s one common bond. The historic role of the Church in the fate of the country, its spiritual authority, moral legitimacy, and the deepest national roots make Orthodoxy a most important component in our ideology.
Per Russian tradition, Leonov and like-minded colleagues support a powerful state, but in light of the Soviet experience are conscious that unity cannot be imposed upon a people through administration or coercion. The harmony of a nation derives from shared culture, the source of which is the cult, man’s relation to the transcendent.
The revival of Orthodoxy and a Christian worldview in the land of the Tsars still faces formidable challenges. Corruption, hypocrisy and the abuse of authority are ever-present in Russian society, though such phenomena are hardly limited to Russia alone. Pernicious remnants of the Soviet legacy, such as abortion and the callous regard for human life it implies, create profound psychic and spiritual trauma, as well as a tortured national conscience. Modern Russians are also well acquainted with Western-style consumerism and hedonism. Yet in spite of these numerous dysfunctions, the hazy realization that men and nations form part of a divine order is becoming clearer.
As Russia returns to the status of a conservative power, the United States has enthusiastically taken up the revolutionary mantle.
In the U.S.-Soviet competition, the Bolshevik ideology was more radical than liberalism, but only in a relative sense. Both systems affirm only material realities and lead man to spiritual desolation. With the defeat of Communism, Washington could attend to the enforcement of its own transnational vision. U.S. foreign policy has functioned as an instrument of revolution, from the “humanitarian” bombing of Serbia to attempts to reform Muslim societies and Islam itself.
Living up to its revolutionary nature, liberal internationalism shares a series of practices with its vanquished Soviet rival. Most noteworthy is a heavy reliance on covert action. Institutes such as Freedom House and the National Endowment for Democracy act as vehicles for regime change, just as Western labor unions and political parties were once manipulated by the Comintern.
The 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia and the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine, as well as other uprisings, were not as spontaneous as portrayed. Both ideologies also have a record of using armed intervention as a means of social engineering. The invasion of a foreign state such as Afghanistan or Iraq is widely hailed as liberation, while counterinsurgency is a sure way to bring the grateful natives into the fold of progressive humanity.
U.S. foreign policy is carried out under the banner of progress, not only for rhetorical purposes, but because American leadership in “expanding the frontiers of freedom” is taken as a matter of faith. A radiant future for humanity is the promise of all modern ideology, though it varies in its forms. What is constant is a materialist reductionism that divorces man from the realm of the spirit. In this way individuals and entire peoples are deprived of uniqueness, traditions, and their place in the Cosmos. Global democratic capitalism, administered by our enlightened elites, corrodes faith, family and culture just as surely as Soviet state socialism. Marx’s appeal to the proletariat has given way to the equally soulless and inane “Consumers of the world unite!”
A discussion of man’s place in the Universe might seem far afield from talk of a second Cold War, but it is intimately connected. Beneath the dynamics of US-Russian strategic rivalry is an underlying battle of ideas. However inadvertently, the conversions of former KGB men can remind us of our own religious tradition, obscured by modernity but not yet lost. The secular parody of universal brotherhood, dedicated to accumulation and enjoyment, only leaves us isolated from each other and the source of life itself. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn asks a decadent West:
Is it true that man is above everything? Is there no Superior Spirit above him? Is it right that man’s life and society’s activities have to be determined by material expansion in the first place? Is it permissible to promote such expansion to the detriment of our spiritual integrity?
We are haunted by the specter of another Cold War, but such a standoff is not inevitable. Russia is not a foreordained enemy, and it has no vital security interests that clash with those of the United States. In order to avoid the danger of renewed conflict, it’s time to reevaluate both the “lifestyle choices” and policies we have long celebrated. At the present moment, the revolutionary fantasies of unlimited consumption and world empire are leading America from one disaster to the next.